112721_ISUvsLoyola_MVC_15

Illinois State's head coach Leah Johnson hugs her daughter after winning her third consecutive Missouri Valley Conference title and fourth consecutive bid to the NCAA tournament.  

Not many Illinois State coaches accomplished more than volleyball’s head coach Leah Johnson after kicking off her shoes to celebrate her third straight Missouri Valley Conference title Saturday at Redbird Arena with a 3-2 win. 

Celebrating with her team and family, Johnson had every reason imaginable to be on top of the world after ISU came back down 2-0 to beat No. 1 Loyola. 

The game perfectly captured the spirit of the season for a team that faced adversity from start to finish. Finishing non-conference play with a .333 winning percentage, the climb to the top of the Valley was capped off by what should be argued to be the best game of any ISU sport over the past four years.

Once again Johnson proved to be one of— if not the best— coaches in the MVC. The Redbirds lost 80% of their offense and trotted out the youngest starting lineup in the conference but still produced the same result as previous years.

Johnson powered her team through many early-season injuries with the Redbirds not having their full lineup until conference play was underway. She kept the team’s head above water in the non-conference season during a very tough field of play.

Even though they were down 2-0 to a tough Rambler team, it never seemed like the Redbirds were completely out of it. They did not act like a normal team that was down by two sets. In fact, the look on their face could have almost convinced me that they were up looking to finish off the Ramblers.

Despite being on the brink of elimination, the Redbirds never blinked and kept their composure on the court. Johnson rallied her team in the best way, winning the third set 25-10, making LUC play like the team that was teetering on elimination.

Even though they were down, the Redbirds looked as confident as they were during their eight-game winning streak from earlier this season.

Johnson made a key adjustment after the second set that was the smartest move of the match. Seeing that MVC Player of the Year Tamara Otene was struggling, Johnson flipped her outside hitters which allowed Otene to break out for seven kills in set four.

The move also benefited Kailtyn Prondzinski who broke out for a career-high 20 kills en route to winning tournament MVP. The move completely took the Ramblers out of their comfort zone in that 15-point set three win.

After the dominant win, I looked over to photo editor Alex Gant and said "If they win set four they're winning it all."

Sure enough, the Redbirds edged out the Ramblers in set four before taking home the championship finishing the game with seven of the last 10 points.

Johnson made another key change in the fifth set when she flipped the lineup back to ISU’s starting lineup to ensure the best servers would be on the court.

The move paid off, leading to Johnson celebrating on the court with her team for the third straight year. Looking at the facts, I’m sure many were surprised by the Redbirds' conference win over what was a statistically better team in most categories.

ISU has a tough task ahead of them as they take on No. 6 Purdue in front of its home crowd Thursday. Johnson is still looking for her first win in four straight trips to the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and this year is no easier than the last four.

Redbird fans should have the utmost confidence in Johnson against the Boilermakers after a great start in her first five years as head coach. And more importantly fans have no reason to worry about her leaving as she is in year one of a new five year contract according to a source close to the team. 

JAKE SERMERSHEIM is a Sports Editor for The Vidette. He can be contacted at vidette_jrserme@ilstu.edu. Follow Sermersheim on Twitter at @JakeSermersheim  


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